Stephen Harper would rather not be here.
“We didn’t want this election,” he pleads. “We wanted to be in Parliament, working.”
He says this or something like this in a ballroom in Mississauga, a gymnasium in Campbell River, a backyard Saanich, a college in Sault Ste Marie and an Italian community hall in Windsor. He says he wishes he was back in Ottawa and back in Parliament so that he could be getting back to the important business of minding the tenuous economic recovery. He says this again and again.
Here Stephen Harper seems to ask only that you disregard—or remain entirely unaware of—recent events, and bow in total deference to what he is saying to you now.
Never mind that two and a half years ago he had Parliament dissolved, flouting his own government’s apparently flimsy attempt to limit a Prime Minister’s ability to do so. Never mind that after that election—as a recession set in—he had Parliament prorogued so he might avoid defeat on an imminent confidence vote. Never mind that a year after that he had Parliament prorogued again—this time so he could have more time to have his picture taken watching hockey games with Wayne Gretzky—and that Canada was thus left without a functioning House of Commons for nearly three months as it proceeded with the aforementioned and still-fragile recovery.
Never mind that he is here now, campaigning for re-election, because last month his government became the first in the history of British democracy to be found in contempt of the House of Commons.
For all of these reasons and various other examples as well, Mr. Harper is often accused of abusing the institutions of Parliament, of disrespecting the formal levers of our democracy and of holding the House of Commons in disdain. And so here he stands in front of his fellow citizens and professes that there is no other place he’d rather be. It is as if he is taunting his detractors. Daring them to call him on it. Mocking their outrage.
He is not creating alternate realities, he is simply daring enough to breeze past any assertion of reality which does not serve his purposes. He is looking you in the eye, shrugging and moving on. He is entirely undaunted by his own record of words and actions.
Maybe this is a requirement for the modern politician. Maybe Mr. Harper is just better at it than any of his rivals. He is, for sure, a man who refuses to be engaged on anything but his own terms. He regularly, for instance, arrives later than scheduled to his public events.
All campaigns create kinds of bubbles—the constant movement deadening the brain and reducing everything else to a blur in your periphery—but Mr. Harper’s possesses the unique feel of a travelling television program. He goes to his mark and he delivers his lines. The props department ensures a sufficient number of children are positioned around him. Wardrobe makes sure he has his Team Canada jacket on. Young production assistants walk around with earpieces, pausing every so often to speak seriously into their shirtsleeves. There is a certain edge of precision to it. Maybe, again, he is simply better at this than any of his rivals. Surely all campaigns are artifice. But his feels so finely choreographed, so exacting, that around it you find yourself worrying about standing in the wrong spot or straying somewhere you shouldn’t. (Indeed, those young production assistants are quick to correct if you do.)
Very little of it seems done for the benefit of anyone watching in person. It is almost entirely for the cameras—for whoever might be watching on CPAC or YouTube, for whatever might make the evening news. At rallies—surrounded by people who, by virtue of their admittance, have almost all assuredly made up their minds to vote for his party’s candidate on May 2—he stands in the middle of the room, trying to look casual and pretending not to read his remarks from a large teleprompter screen positioned ten feet in front of him. He is not particularly rousing or lofty. This is an infomercial and in a pleading tone he begs you to buy his “strong, stable, national, majority government” that will keep your taxes low. In a complex world, he is a man of simple notions. Amid so much conflict and incoherence, he is reliably straightforward and resolute. Tax cuts are good. The coalition is bad. Canada is awesome. He is stability and strength and principle and patriotism. All else is chaos and disaster. Anything else will imperil everything you hold dear. Those who oppose him oppose old ladies and volunteer firefighters.
The audience is here to wave signs and applaud. They are here to further the illusion that this is something other than a taped television advert. He insists on leading the crowd in a wordy chant—”Conservatives say yes, without raising taxes”—and in those moments, he becomes Sam Popeil hawking the Ronco rotisserie. Just set it and forget it.
For 15 minutes each day, Mr. Harper gives himself over to a kind of uncertainty. But even this—the time set aside each morning for questions from members of the press—is tightly accounted for. Reporters from national outlets travelling with Mr. Harper are, as a group, permitted a total of four questions each day. Surrounded by supporters, each of Mr. Harper’s answers are dutifully applauded. Crucially, no attempts to follow up on an answer are allowed. Thus, Mr. Harper enjoys wide latitude to simply talk around subjects he’d rather avoid. He is discipline personified and he will give no life to undesirable stories. And with the press, addled on Twitter, unwilling to dwell on anything for more than 48 hours (if that), he has proceeded steadily through this campaign, through half a dozen scandals of varying relevance, without so much as a dip in his party’s standing.
He does not shy from bold assertions—or at least assertions that might seem bold to anyone stubborn enough to quibble over the details.
In his pitch for the cameras, he talks ominously of global danger beyond our shores and warns of chaos at home if he is not re-elected with a majority government. Three years ago it was Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax that was going to plunge the country into recession. Somehow we ended up there anyway.
He laments that the country has been subject to so many general elections in recent times—four votes in the last seven years—never minding that he precipitated half of those. He worries that another minority government and another election soon thereafter could do grievous harm to the country, even if, by his own reckoning, the country is presently the closest thing the world has to an island of security and stability despite those four elections and these seven years of minority government.
Though he once speculated that an alliance of parties could unite to defeat and replace a Liberal minority government and though he once worked with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to threaten Paul Martin’s minority government, that an arrangement of other parties might work together to defeat and replace a Conservative minority government of his is now spoken of as an unholy and undemocratic option.
Once he may have promised never to run a deficit, but now only he can lead the country back to balance.
Once he may have dismissed the country as a sad, second-rate joke, but now he is the ultimate Canadian, the courageous warrior who lives and breathes only for the Maple Leaf. (He may moan that he’d rather not be here, but he still managed to have thousands of signs printed up with his name on one side and the name of the country on the other, the two words having recently been declared interchangeable.)
Most of this is delivered in a tone that suggests a begging for reason. Come now, Mr. Harper pleads, let us be reasonable.*
Consider that when Mr. Harper was finally moved to apologize for the ejection of various individuals from his campaign events, he did so only in the hypothetical sense.
Consider that when a television interviewer, afforded a rare opportunity to press Mr. Harper on a particular matter, tried repeatedly to coax him into acknowledging, at the risk of undermining part of his argument against a coalition, one of the basic principles of the Westminster system under which this country has functioned for nearly 150 years, Mr. Harper said could only be compelled to say that the point debatable.
He is unrelenting in this way. Undaunted. Maybe it is a requirement of the modern politician. Maybe, again, he is simply better at it than his rivals. He is undoubtedly excellent at it. He concedes nothing. No matter how much you shout.
When a television reporter, unsatisfied with the response to a question he had posed after one event last week, dared to direct a supplementary question at Mr. Harper, the Conservative partisans around the Prime Minister rose up to drown out the journalist with cheers. (Among the most enthusiastic applauders was a member of the Prime Minister’s staff—a senior advisor apparently hired both for his ability to forcefully put his hands together and his eagerness to defend the boss from any assertion of unapproved reality.) The reporter kept shouting and the crowd grew louder. The reporter persisted and the crowd stood and began to chant Mr. Harper’s name.
Mr. Harper simply stood there, in the middle of it all, waiting for the man to give up.
*An addendum. His appeal is unquestionably not without its appeal. Minority government seemed like a good idea at the time, but majority rule does have its comparative advantages. (For one, it would conceivably compel the press gallery to do something other than speculate about the timing and context of the next election.) Paying less in taxes almost always sounds great. Canada is indisputably a fine country. If you have no particular quibble with any of the other stuff, there are ideals here to vote for. Especially if you’re still disgusted by what the Liberal Party of Canada did when it was in government.